Week 44: #52 Ancestors – Scary Stuff
By Eilene Lyon
Confronting our own mortality is one of the scariest things we ever do. My research into the 19th-century lives of my ancestors and kin has revealed many awful ways to die. I’ve previously discussed milk sickness and tuberculosis. A few recent coincidences led me to diphtheria.
While walking around the Nevada City living history museum with the “midwife,” she described to me how diphtheria victims would grow a membrane across their throats that would suffocate them if she didn’t stick a poker into their airways to tear it. I was suitably horrified at the image. I will not gross you out with photos – the links below will take you to them, if you want to see the effects of this disease.
Not long after I came home, I was scanning some notes written by my grandmother about the Ransom family and found a notation about a Dr. Ransom and the Nobel Prize. An internet search led me to an article about Dr. Emil von Behring, first winner of the Nobel for Medicine in 1901 for his research on diphtheria.1
Oh, that disease again! So what about Dr. Ransom? Dr. Frederick Parlett Fisher Ransom was a doctor in Norfolk, England, and professor at the University of London, who was at one time a colleague of Dr. Behring.2 No relation of mine, and I never found any Dr. Ransom who ever won a Nobel. So much for Grandma’s research note – trash! (I find a number of dead ends this way.)
Going through random people in my tree for last week’s post, I came across a death by diphtheria in the Rowley family line. Lulu Mary Rowley was the niece of my 3rd great-grandmother, Mary P. (Rowley) Cutting. That makes her my 1st cousin four times removed.
Lulu was the daughter of George A. Rowley and Mary Elizabeth Hubbell, born in Charlotte, Chittenden County, Vermont, in July 1862 in the midst of the Civil War.3 A month later, her cousin Cassius Newell, who had volunteered to serve, died of dysentery in Virginia.4
When Lulu was a year and a half old, her father died of consumption, age 39.5 It was not an auspicious beginning to a baby girl’s life. Her mother remarried and in 1866 and 1869, Lulu acquired two half-sisters, Jennie and Stella White.
About the only other thing I know of young Lulu’s life is that at age 14 she attended school at the Charlotte Seminary and her grade of 18.5 (20 being perfect) put her below average. None of the students had a 20, and the lowest grade was 18.1.6
The following year, 1878, saw epidemics of diphtheria flow through northern Vermont. Mrs. White (widowed a second time) and her three daughters were all taken ill.7 The bacteria that cause this disease do not kill, but they produce a toxin that affects various organs: heart, kidneys, and nervous system, as well as the respiratory system. A related bacterium can cause grotesque skin lesions.
Symptoms appear two to seven days after infection, usually by air, and include fever, fatigue, difficulty breathing, a hoarse cough, possible swelling of the throat, and cyanosis (blue skin) due to lack of oxygen.8 Complications can include myocarditis, paralysis, and kidney failure.9
Humans are uniquely susceptible to diphtheria, thanks to having tonsils. The bacteria lodge in them and the toxin kills surrounding tissue. It is this dead tissue that builds up and creates a pale gray pseudomembrane that can choke off the airway. Sometimes a tracheotomy is required to restore breathing.
Elizabeth White and her two younger daughters recovered, but Lulu succumbed to her illness on March 14th, not yet 16.10 She was hardly alone in her suffering, as the disease carried away many of her fellow Vermonters that year. Over in England, even royalty were not spared. Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Anne and her family fell ill, the princess herself fatally.
Lulu’s extended family would have prepared her body for display in her home and burial. The following day she would be taken to the cemetery, the family and friends also responsible for digging the grave.11 She was laid to rest near her father, George Rowley, in Barber Cemetery in Charlotte.12
Her mother joined her just a few years later, followed by Jennie, Lulu’s half-sister, who was just 20 when she died in 1889. Of this seemingly cursed family, only Stella White lived a somewhat long life to 63, marrying, but having no children.
While diphtheria has not been entirely eradicated, it has become very rare, thanks to vaccination protocols. Usually children receive inoculation for diphtheria along with protection from pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus. Thanks to the work of many dedicated scientists and physicians over many decades, we no longer have to fear this scary disease.
Feature image: View of Camel’s Hump Mountain from Charlotte, Vermont (Wikimedia Commons)
- https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1901/behring/lecture/ ↩
- https://www.bmj.com/content/1/3974/533 ↩
- Lulu M. Rowley. Ancestry.com. Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. Birth date calculated from death record and age at death. ↩
- Cassius Newell. Ancestry.com. U.S., Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. ↩
- George Rowley. Ancestry.com. Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. ↩
- Burlington Weekly Free Press. January 5, 1877, p.4 – via Newspapers.com. ↩
- Burlington Weekly Free Press. March 22, 1878, p.4 – via Newspapers.com. Lulu died eight days earlier. So much for timely news. ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diphtheria ↩
- https://www.cdc.gov/diphtheria/about/complications.html and https://www.cdc.gov/diphtheria/about/photos.html ↩
- See note 3. ↩
- Death is everywhere present page 27 (2) ↩
- https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/31670636/lulu-m.-rowley ↩